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New York’s Finest: Paying Tribute to the Beastie Boys in the Pages of the Voice

‘Even at the beginning there was more than beer spray and gun smoke, metal riffs and hip-hop beats’

by

Though we may never again be treated to new music from the Beastie Boys — those three impish young New Yorkers, Adam Yauch (MCA), Adam Horowitz (Ad Rock), and Michael Diamond (Mike D), who went on to become one of the most original and longest-lasting groups in the history of rap — fans this week were treated to some new material from the group with the release of its Beastie Boys Book. A Beasties-style oral history, the book features the Boys’ two remaining members, Ad Rock and Mike D, swapping written reminiscences that span their pre-Beastie days growing up in New York to MCA’s death in 2012, at the age of 47, from cancer. Interspersed are a mini-cookbook, a graphic novella, and essays from numerous famous writers and artists, including several Voice contributors, such as Colson Whitehead, Luc Sante, and Ada Calhoun.

The Voice itself also features in the book’s 590 pages, having played an important part in the group’s formation, with Mike D describing their early days as a hardcore band:

We also read everything we could find about punk and hardcore, which wasn’t much: The Face magazine and the NYC free weeklies SoHo Weekly News and the Village Voice. The last two were particularly useful because in addition to articles, they contained concert calendars, and in the back pages were ads for all the upcoming shows. It was in one or both of those weekly papers that, sometime in late 1980, we found an ad announcing a Bad Brains show at Botany Talk House, a tiny dive bar in Chelsea. By this time, I’d already spent countless afternoons alone in my bedroom dancing like an idiot to “Pay to Cum.” We were in. 

But at the heart of the book is the Beasties’ transformation from three boys fighting for their right to party — boys whose stage personas, however ironic, championed homophobia and misogyny — to enlightened elder statesmen of rap who spent years atoning for their past sins. And in the yellowed pages of the Voice, we can see that growth as well.

The Beasties first appear in the Voice in the April 15, 1986, issue, in an preview for their opening slot for Run-D.M.C at the Apollo Theater. (It’s interesting to note that their famous gig opening for Madonna on her 1985 Virgin Tour did not appear in our pages; apparently, Madonna’s New York City shows were so completely sold out that her management didn’t even bother taking out a token ad.) The writer, R.J. Smith, has little of worth to say about the nascent group, which at the time had yet to release more than some singles, merely saying that its current radio hit, “Hold It, Now Hit It,” “doesn’t suck eggs.”

Almost a year later, the Beasties’ standing had changed; by the time Doug Simmons tackled them in a short item in the March 31, 1987, issue, their album Licensed to Ill, released in November 1986, had already become the fastest-selling debut in the history of Columbia Records. The Voice’s opinion of them, however, remained the same. The Beasties were making a name for themselves not just with their rapid-fire rhymes, but also with their fratty stage personas — always explained away as “ironic” and “satirical.” Simmons notes the group’s “chronicled excesses” — being banned for life from Holiday Inns, for instance — calling them “road warrior clichés.” But, he writes, “sometimes the persona slips in front of a notebook, and the fiction gives way to something dangerously earnest and reactionary.” Calling out some homophobic comments made by Ad Rock in an NME interview — “[Greenwich Village] is the gay area and I’ve lived here all my life and I hate faggots” — and MCA’s clumsy attempt to explain away his bandmate’s words, Simmons writes, “This is wack. The Beastie Boys have always tempered their studied disgustingness with the justification that they’re only three jerks in search of a good time. It’s just a goof. As MCA assured the Los Angeles Times, ‘Kids know we’re joking.’ Not anymore.”

In June of that same year, the Beasties appear in our pages again, this time in Simon Frith’s Brit Beat column. The English music journalist reported from overseas on the Beasties’ “welcome” by the British tabloids, which had detailed all manner of nasty behavior on the part of the boys — some of which turned out to have been “fake news,” or at least misreported. As Frith writes, “The Boys themselves…had discovered what’s bred in the bone of British pop stars, that when it comes to bad taste, there’s no one as irredeemably sleazy as the tabloid British journalist.” He goes on to review their performance in Birmingham, where they were once again opening for Run-D.M.C., on the groups’ Together Forever Tour, saying of their specific brand of rap: “I realised it isn’t a rip-off of black culture but something more locally familiar, a boys’ takeover of the girls’ skipping rhymes, dirtying them up because that’s what boys are supposed to do.”

Jump ahead to 1989, and we see that the Voice is starting to come around, thanks to the Beasties’ second release, the now-legendary Paul’s Boutique. Fans of the group, or even of the genre in general, may enjoy reading this real-time review of an album now universally described as seminal, groundbreaking, and a masterpiece. While critics today will stress the heretofore unseen sampling genius the Beasties and their producers, the Dust Brothers, employed on Paul’s Boutique, Christgau notes the samples almost in passing, saying they’re exploited “less as hooks than as tags.” Instead, he chronicles the Beasties’ unexpected success as obnoxious white boys in a “genre invented by and for black teenagers whose racial consciousness ran deep and would soon get large,” and explores how the Beasties are, even here, beginning to grow away from that frat-boy persona: “One of the most impressive things about Paul’s Boutique is what can only be called its moral tone. The Beasties are still bad — they get laid, they do drugs, they break laws, they laze around. But this time they know the difference between bad and evil.”

As for the album itself, Christgau declares that Paul’s Boutique isn’t as “user-friendly” as Licensed to Ill’s pop metal: “I don’t hear a rock anthem like ‘Fight for Your Right,’ or street beats like ‘Hold It, Now Hit It’’s either. But give it three plays and half a j’s concentration and it will amaze and delight you with its high-speed volubility and riffs from nowhere.”

By the time they appeared in our pages again, five years later, the Beasties had released 1992’s live instrument–heavy Check Your Head, along with 1994’s Some Old Bullshit, a collection of early independent releases; they had formed their record label/lifestyle magazine Grand Royal; and, particularly in the case of MCA, they had undergone some serious soul searching and repudiation of their old misogynist and homophobic ways. In the June 14, 1994, issue, in which Joe Levy reviews the band’s fourth album, Ill Communication, we see the Voice treating the Beasties as Serious Artists, with Levy describing the group circa Paul’s Boutique as “prescient, brilliant, matching bottomless wit with bottomless musical invention.” In his write-up, Levy describes the Boys’ growth and transformation, both personally and musically: “Ill Communication is where the Beastie Boys try to grow the music up — the first track and single, ‘Sure Shot,’ boasts proudly of gray hair (MCA), marriage (Mike D.), and hard work (Mike D.) before offering this shout-out from MCA: ‘I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end.’ ” “You have to admire the Beasties for wanting to show they can have as much fun as responsible adults as they did as stoopid kids,” he continues, “but growing the music up is perilously close to maturing as artists, as big a rock cliché as calls to eco-action — bigger. It’s the superficial story of Ill Communication,” he says, further theorizing that the album’s more complicated story is one of “balancing disruption and coherence, a way of illing and checking your head at the same time.”

Levy closes out his review with a description of the Beasties as the influential rap icons they had become. “For all their hard work and emergent craft, the Beasties are no longer about making records — today they make culture. In the ’90s…no other major-label act works as hard to make their fans into a community.… You might even think that was their plan from the very beginning.”

“Beastie Boys: How Ya Like ’Em Now?”
By Robert Christgau, August 15, 1989

On the rap report card Kool Moe Dee stuck into How Ya Like Me Now back in ’87, the old-schooler proved an easy marker — only two of the 25 pupils fell below Public Enemy at 80 B. The token nonentity Boogie Boys got 7 or 8 in teach’s 10 categories for a 77 C+, and way below that were the perpetrators of history’s best-selling rap album, the Beastie Boys, with a 10 in sticking to themes, an 8 in records and stage presence, and a 6 or 7 in vocabulary, voice, versatility, articulation, creativity, originality, and innovating rhythms. Total: 70, barely a C.

You can laugh off these grades, but with Moe Dee’s archival L.L. Cool J tied for fifth at 90 A, they did represent his sincere attempt to formalize the values of his fading artistic generation — values upended by Public Enemy and the Beasties. A career nondropout who earned a communications B.A. while leading the Treacherous Three, Moe Dee idealized upright manliness; having come up in a vital performance community, he didn’t consider records important enough to mark for hooks, mixing, sampling, pacing, innovating textures, and what have you. Like most rock pioneers, he couldn’t comprehend the upheaval he’d helped instigate: a music composed in the studio by copycats so in love with rap that they thought nothing of stretching it, mocking it, wrecking it, exploiting it — going too far, taking it up and over and out and around, making it better.

If Public Enemy was a threat — collegians with a radical program, arrogantly burying their pleasures deep — the Beasties were an insult; they dissed everything Moe Dee stood for. Sons of the artistic upper-middle class (architect, art dealer, playwright), they laughed at the education Chuck D made something of and Moe Dee strove for (two years at Bard, a term at Vassar, two hours at Manhattan Community). Like millions of bohos before them, they were anything but upright, boys not men for as long as they could get away with it. As born aesthetes, they grabbed onto rap’s musical quality and potential; as reflexive rebels, they celebrated its unacceptability in the punk subculture and the world outside. And of course, they were white in a genre invented by and for black teenagers whose racial consciousness ran deep and would soon get large.

The way the Beasties tapped the hip-hop audience says plenty for the smarts and openness of their black manager and the black kids he steered them toward, but also testifies to their own instinct and flair. From Anthrax to Maroon, those few white imitators who aren’t merely horrendous don’t come close to the Beasties’ street credibility. We were probably right to credit Rick Rubin with all the what-have-you that as of late 1986 made Licensed To Ill history’s greatest rap album, but in retrospect one recalls the once-fashionable fallacy that George Martin was the fifth Beatle. Certainly the Beasties’ unduplicable personas and perfect timing were what Rubin’s expansive metal-rap was selling, and most likely a fair share of the music was their idea. We didn’t think they could top themselves not because they were stupid or untalented — except for a few cretins in the Brit tabloids, nobody really believed that — but because their achievement was untoppable by definition. Outrage gets old fast, and rap eats its kings like no pop subgenre ever.

Lots of things have changed since late 1986. The Beasties’ street credibility dimmed as “Fight for Your Right” went pop and Public Enemy turned hip-hop to black nationalism. Due partly to the Beasties and mostly to how good the shit was, Yo! MTV Raps brought black rap to a white audience. History’s biggest-selling rap single (and first number-one black rap album) was recorded in L.A. by a former repo man. After feuding with his black partner, Rick Rubin transmuted into a metal producer, and after feuding with their black manager, the Beasties became Capitol’s first East Coast rap signing since the Boogie Boys. Chuck D. and Hank Shocklee undertook to mix up a since-aborted album of the Beasties’ Def Jam outtakes. And if the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique doesn’t top Licensed To Ill, though in some ways it does, it’s up there with De La Soul in a year when L.L. Cool J is holding his crown and Kool Moe Dee is showing his age.

Avant-garde rap, Licensed To Ill was pop metal, foregrounding riffs and attitude any hedonist could love while eliminating wack solos and dumb-ass posturing (just like Kool Moe Dee, metal fans think David Coverdale has more “voice” than Johnny Thunders). Paul’s Boutique isn’t user-friendly — I don’t hear a rock anthem like “Fight for Your Right,” or street beats like “Hold It, Now Hit It”’s either. But give it three plays and a half a j’s concentration and it will amaze and delight you with its high-speed volubility and riffs from nowhere. It’s a generous tour de force — an absolutely unpretentious and unsententious affirmation of cultural diversity, of where they came from and where they went from there.

For versatility, or at least variety, they drop names: check out the names they drop: Cezanne, Houdini, Newton, Salinger, Ponce de Leon, Sadaharu Oh, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Blow, Bob Dylan, Jelly Roll Morton, Jerry Lee Swaggart, Jerry Lee Falwell. Or the samples they exploit less as hooks than as tags: Funky Four Plus One (twice), Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Public Enemy, Wailers, Eek-a-Mouse (I think), Jean Knight, Ricky Skaggs (I think). For innovating rhythms, there are countless funk and metal artists I can’t ID even when I recognize them. For vocabulary, start with “I’m Adam and I’m adamant about living large,” or maybe “Expressing my aggressions through my schizophrenic verse words” (rhymes with curse words), then ponder these pairings: snifter-shoplifter, selfish-shellfish, homeless-phoneless, cellular-hell you were, fuck this-Butkus. Not what Moe Dee had in mind, of course. But definitely what all avatars of information overload have in mind, or some of it: “If I had a penny for my thoughts I’d be a millionaire.”

These Beasties aren’t as stoopid or stupid as the ones Rick Rubin gave the world (or as Rick Rubin). In fact, one of the most impressive things about Paul’s Boutique is what can only be called its moral tone. The Beasties are still bad — they get laid, they do drugs, they break laws, they laze around. But this time they know the difference between bad and evil. Crack and cocaine and woman-beaters and stickup kids get theirs; one song goes out to a homeless rockabilly wino, another ends, “Racism is schism on the serious tip.” For violence in the street we have the amazing “Egg Man,” in which they pelt various straights, fall guys, and miscreants with “a symbol of life”: “Not like the crack that you put in a pipe/But the crack on your forehead here’s/A towel now wipe.” Hostile? Why not? Destructive? Not if they can help it without trying too hard. They’re not buying.

Just to dis Def Jam — check “Car Thief,” which also takes on the presidency — the Beasties couldn’t have picked more apposite collaborators than L.A.’s Dust Brothers, one of whom co-produced the aforementioned number-one rap album. But where Loc-ed After Dark is simplistic, its beats and hooks marched out one at a time, Paul’s Boutique is jam-packed, frenetic, stark. It doesn’t groove with the affirmative swagger of Kool Moe Dee or L.L. Cool J, and its catholicity is very much in-your-face — as is its unspoken avowal that the music of a nascent Afrocentrism can still be stretched (mocked? wrecked?) by sons of the white artistic upper-middle class. Having gotten rich off rap, the Beasties now presume to adapt it to their roots, to make Paul’s Boutique a triumph of postmodern “art.” Their sampling comes down on the side of dissociation, not synthesis — of a subculture happily at the end of its tether rather than nascent anything. It impolitely demonstrates that privileged wise guys can repossess the media options Moe Dee was battling for back when they were still punks in prep school. After all, this deliberately difficult piece of product will outsell Knowledge Is King. One can only hope Moe Dee is race man enough to take satisfaction in its failure to overtake Walking With a Panther, or Loc-ed After Dark.

“The Portable Lower East Side: Beastie Boys”
By Joe Levy, June 14, 1994

From the very beginning — goofing on Tom Carvel and rapping over AC/DC riffs like bedroom stoners who wished they were dirtbags — there was no difference between how they sounded and what they were, or at least what they projected. The voices, whiny and young, communicated in seconds a worldview it had taken a short lifetime of cathode-ray overexposure and pop-culture over-consumption to develop, a teenboy fantasy as fully formed, detailed, and endlessly explorable as any that Robert Plant’s witchy, hip-melting howl ever conjured. High and tight, their spiel spoke of the maturation of immaturity, of the years it took to go from sucking helium out of balloons at bar mitzvahs to sucking nitrous outside of whippets at dorm parties. They couldn’t stop talking, either — the restless energy, the legacy of boredom that knew no bottom, threatened to shred their throats. There was something like confidence in all that talk, but it was too eager, too unearned to be a real thing. This was the invincibility of pranksters who needed to hide behind the telephone, of practical jokers who knew they’d get their asses kicked if they got caught. Not, What are you rebelling against? What have you got? but, What are you making fun of? What have you got?

Even at the beginning, though, there was more than beer spray and gun smoke, metal riffs and hiphop beats. There was love, too — the love of risk and difference, a vital attraction that drew them like a magnet away from the comforts of Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, and the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side, where like every generation of bohemians before them they set about reinventing themselves. It was the early ’80s, a moment when the original punks were consciously abandoning their own whiteness to dig deep into black rhythms — albeit the sounds of the past (James Brown) or the future (Grandmaster Flash) rather than the dance music of the present. It was a time when suburban new wavers could learn about reggae from Elvis Costello and about rap from the Clash, when punks and Studio 54 celebs and Bronx MCs and the rest of the world besides were all in orbit around the same music: the bassline and unbelievably springy guitar of Chic’s “Good Times.”

“When we were 13 and 14 and went to clubs and heard the DJ mix Big Youth and Treacherous Three with James White or Delta 5,” Mike D. recently told Simon Reynolds, “it wasn’t, ‘Hey, now we’re finding out about what people from another culture are about.’ It was just great music. All the kids at my school were into Led Zeppelin and the Eagles and that was what I defined myself against. So it was more a case of cool music versus uncool music.” This is wishful thinking, of course, the reductive cool-versus-uncool approach raised to the level of high theory by another set of B-boys, Beavis and Butt-head. More likely it was a little of both — great music and a way of finding out what people from another culture were about — but that wish counts for something. Because early on, the Beastie Boys made that wish come true.

Listen to the juvenilia collected on Some Old Bullshit and you can hear that wish taking form. They dive into hardcore, the strain of punk that reasserted the whiteness of the wail, and come out the other side as the rappers whose wanton disregard for boundaries — social, racial, moral, and musical — would win them so much notoriety on Licensed To Ill. The wish was not just that it was as simple as good music versus bad music, but that the good music created a way of belonging, a “Beastie Revolution” (as Some Old Bullshit’s ragamuffin track puts it), a place where cultures could interact dynamically and unceasingly as in the Manhattan the Beastie Boys continue to claim as home years after going off to Cali. Specifically, it is an integrationist wish, one aptly summed up by the name of the tour the million-selling Beastie Boys of Licensed To Ill embarked on with the million-selling Run-D.M.C. of Raising Hell in 1987: Together Forever.

Again, wishful thinking — as the ’80s became the ’90s, neither the music nor the group’s careers would earn the boast. Once hiphop entered the age of identity politics with another 1987 event, Public Enemy’s debut, performers who made a point of blurring the lines between audiences and cultures faded faster than suede Pumas left out in the rain. By 1989, the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique couldn’t have been more out of step. Abandoning Licensed To Ill’s gangsta cartoons in the year of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, they approached hiphop as pop art, or “B-boy Bouillabaisse,” as they named the suite that closed out the album. They sampled Johnny Cash five years before Rick Rubin got to him, a bong hit two years before Cypress Hill made dope a cause célèbre, and the Sweet and the Isley Brothers four years before Lenny Kravitz brokered the marriage. They were prescient, brilliant, matching bottomless wit with bottomless musical invention. All they lacked was an audience.

Or so it seemed. Much is made of the musical woodshedding that went into 1992’s Check Your Head — the album where they played their instruments! — but the three years between Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head were more notable for the quality of their demographic research. Having found an audience that no one knew existed and then lost it to “real niggas” and pop fakes, the third time out they satisfied true loyalists and new recruits by satisfying themselves. In the process they found the emerging archetype of ’90s stardom, as crystallized by antistars from Nirvana to Ice Cube: the refusal to compromise. “Be true to yourself and you will never fall,” Mike D. advised on Check Your Head’s first single, “Pass the Mic.” No one seemed to mind that the songs seemed longer on ideas than wit or musicianship, because the Beasties had found a way to flaunt the old together-forever wish without selling out. From the title — back-in-the-day phraseology for “think it over” that alluded to Dischord’s crucial DC hardcore compilation Flex Your Head — to the grooves, here were two musics, two cultures, one people. There was a Sly Stone song done up hardcore stylee, there were backing tracks that imagined Curtis Mayfield riding with the James Gang, there were skateboard on-ramps to stoned soul picnics, and cable channels that showed nothing but Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off and Suburbia over and over again. But the Dischord reference hinted at a problem as well. Having made two of the greatest albums of the ’80s, the Beasties were in danger of turning into Fugazi — a band honored more for its principles and past accomplishments, a band loved most for what it represented, not how it sounded.

Sure enough, at a surprise Artists for Tibet benefit at the Academy two Fridays ago, Mike D. lectured the crowd on the politics of moshing, just like Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye at Fugazi concerts. “You can watch MTV at home and do that shit,” he said, later dedicating “Tough Guy” — one of three hardcore slammers on the new Ill Communication (Capitol/Grand Royal) — to the bully boys stepping on other people’s heads: “Now you’re poking me in the eye/Bill Laimbeer motherfucker, it’s time for you to die.” Ill Communication is where the Beastie Boys try to grow the music up — the first track and single, “Sure Shot,” boasts proudly of gray hair (MCA), marriage (Mike D.), and hard work (Mike D.) before offering this shout-out from MCA: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end.” MCA — who got to California and kept going west until he discovered Tibetan Buddhism — is at the center of Ill Communication as surely as Ad Rock, the only unrepentant wiseass left in the bunch, was at the center of Licensed To Ill. Repudiating his fascination with firearms in the superb, full-service Beastie-zine Grand Royal, giving respect to hiphop’s African descent on “Alright Hear This,” or calling for eco-action with Rastalike intimations of apocalypse on “The Update,” he’s atoning for past sins. Just as he’s smart enough to know he’ll never swing like the funk and jazz journeymen the Beasties now idolize (“Playing the bass is my favorite shit/I might be a hack on the stand up but I’m working at it”), he’s smart enough not to sound like a prig (“I’m not preaching bullshit/Just speaking my mind”). He concludes “Sure Shot” with this album’s version of the old wish: “Send my rhymes out to all nations/Like Ma Bell, I’ve got the ill communications.”

You have to admire the Beasties for wanting to show they can have as much fun as responsible adults as they did as stoopid kids, but growing the music up is perilously close to maturing as artists, as big a rock cliché as calls to eco-action — bigger. It’s the superficial story of Ill Communication, the way learning to play their instruments was the superficial story of Check Your Head. A more complicated version of the story starts with the title — which seems to refer less to the feedback on Sonic Youth and Pavement records or the “Can I take your order, sir?” squawk boxes they’re now enamored of than to a way of balancing disruption and coherence, a way of illing and checking your head at the same time. Whether it’s guest star Q-Tip interrupting one cipher session with “Phone is ringing, oh my god,” Ad Rock getting silly with “I’ve got a Grandma Hazel and a Grandma Tilly” (the most Jewish rhyme these Jewish rappers ever popped), or Mike D. babbling about his golf game, Ill Communication freestyles till it very nearly combusts. It aims to take whatever’s on their minds and make it signify.

The music, too, works an off-the-top-of-their-heads vibe, though much more carefully. A determinedly futuristic album designed to crackle like an old LP, Ill Communication uses technology to push forward and backward at the same time. As with Check Your Head, it offers vinyl-only thrift-store bargains on ’70s styles: blaxploitation percussion, skunk-rock fuzz bass, disco flute, punk loudhardfast, and general dub madness. The Beasties have found their own sound among their obsessions — elegantly fucked-up hiphop that brings a work ethic to indie-rock accidentalism — but still get by on their DIY cred. Often they’re after the metallic skank, accidental funk, and haphazard rhythmic inventions of Miles Davis’s On the Corner, and they may never have enough command over their instruments to capture its falling-apart-at-the-seams-but-in-the-pocket grooves (personal to drummer Mike D.: since knocking off Ben Davis designs worked so well in the shmatte trade, why not just sample beats?). But they’ve got more than enough rhyme skills — they can be loose and in control at the same time, moving with the physical power, championship drive, and awkward authority they could just as well have learned from their beloved Knicks. The endless flow of freestyle verbiage makes Ill Communication seem more like the result of partying than woodshedding.

And it goes deeper than that. For all their hard work and emergent craft, the Beasties are no longer about making records — today, they make culture. In the ’90s — when every new star climbs up on the cross to tell us about being afraid of, revolted by, or victim to the pop audience — no other major-label act works as hard to make their fans into a community. The magazine they started to answer write-in requests for the lyrics to Check Your Head offers both aesthetic and spiritual guidance, as do the hardcore and art-funk records they release on their label of the same name; Mike D.’s X-Large stores are only too happy to see to his audience’s clothing needs. Their records need only function as a portable Lower East Side, an East Village of the mind, a place where the 14-year-old kids who’ll flock to see them at Lollapalooza this summer — and who were in kindergarten when “Fight for Your Right” hit MTV — can go to hear good music and find out how people from another culture live. They’ve become the DJ, mixing Big Youth and the Treacherous Three with the SS Decontrol and Luscious Jackson. You might even think that was their plan from the very beginning.

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